Ever since COVID-19 entered the public consciousness, the people elected to lead the state of Utah seem to have viewed the pandemic less as a challenge to public health than as an opportunity to boost the fortunes of a few of the state’s well-connected businesses.
Officials in the executive and legislative branches have not been shy about making bold promises about — and spending serious amounts of taxpayer money on — questionable treatments, an unreliable testing system and most recently a facility that, at best, duplicates the efforts of the state’s established health care systems.
Nomi Health is a Silicone Slopes outfit that, as part of the TestUtah consortium of companies, has been the center of controversy in Utah, straddling the administrations of Gary Herbert and Spencer Cox. Similar concerns have been raised in Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee over contracts to provide pandemic-related services, contracts that were later questioned or canceled.
The company’s most recent get was a no-bid contract from the Utah Department of Health, worth as much as $750,000, to set up a clinic to administer monoclonal antibody treatment.
Unlike some much more questionable concoctions promoted in the early days of the pandemic, monoclonal antibody treatment actually shows promise for those who have COVID-19 — if it is administered within seven days from the onset of symptoms or a positive test. So matching those likely to benefit from the treatment with a place that will provide it may seem like a good idea.
The health department thought enough of it to waive the normal process for seeking bids and qualifying contractors and hired Nomi to set up a clinic in Utah County, which opened Oct. 25. It is both legal and wise to have a process for letting contracts without going to bid in circumstances where a need is acute or a service to be provided is, in the words of state statute, “new or innovative.”
New and innovative this treatment may be. But it was already available at some 60 locations across the state — from St. George to Moab to Logan — at existing health care centers run by the state, by Intermountain Healthcare and others. So it is hard to see what purpose — what urgency — there was to justify this single-source contract.
Like far too many other battles in Utah’s war on COVID-19, there has been far too little transparency and far too much eagerness to trust flashy high-tech mavens over the more reliable experts of the state’s universities and world-class health care centers.
As an IHC microbiologist wrote back in April of 2020, “A pandemic is not the time for amateurs to learn.”
Senate President Stuart Adams was an early advocate of the then (and now) unproven COVID treatment hydroxychloroquine and remains a proponent of making monoclonal antibody treatment more widely available, in hopes of easing the strain on the state’s hospitals.
But, as revealed by emails The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through an open records request, even Adams was distressed to learn that the Nomi contract had been issued, without taking bids and without telling him or other public officials who have been trying to help their constituents find tests and treatments.
The senator raised a valid point that, with the bad vibes haunting Nomi from its questionable history of providing coronavirus testing — using a lab that didn’t meet federal standards and steering patients to hydroxychloroquine providers — involving that company in the monoclonal antibodies rollout might give the whole process a bad name.
“When the media raised questions about the procurement, no-bid contracts, cost, and it got bad,” Adams wrote, “everyone ran for cover.”
Maybe too much cover.
This new treatment should be available. Anything that might help should be.
But putting too much stress on the promise of monoclonal antibodies — pretending an urgency that would justify tossing aside normal government purchasing rules — risks undermining the primary message that real health care professionals are trying to stress.